Tackling your child’s anxiety through food
Children may get anxious in a variety of situations like starting school, or even returning to school after the summer break. This is a perfectly normal feeling; it’s our bodies innate survival instinct to be prepared to ‘fight or flight’ to the unknown. Usually this is short-lived and explainable, however for some children these feelings of worry and fear may last a lot longer, may be more intense, or may extend to other situations. Their anxiousness may be interfering or stopping them from participating in school or social activities or their fears and worries may seem out of proportion compared to other children of their age. They may experience unexplainable headaches, tummy aches, insomnia and muscle tension, becoming quite creative at getting out of the activity or situation that they don’t know want to be in. Around 7% of children in Australia are affected by some sort of anxiety issue.
There is increasing evidence suggesting that the food we eat affects our mood and our behaviour. Similarly, the food we choose can be linked to the mood we are in (think chocolate/sugar cravings to boost low moods!). It may therefore be worth considering the following points to help support your anxious child.
Is your child eating a range of fruit and vegetables?
Eating a wide range of fruit and vegetables is unarguably important for everyone. And for the anxious child, nutrients found in vegetables, like Magnesium, can assist in calming and relaxing your child. Berries, apples, kale, spinach and broccoli are high in antioxidants. These antioxidants can reduce oxidative stress and support the immune system which has a knock-on effect reducing anxiety. Aim for a rainbow of fruit and vegetables across the week as each colour is helpful for a different reason.
Is your child eating too much sugar?
Sugar is everywhere! It’s not just lollies, cakes and soft drinks but it’s also found in many flavoured yoghurts, juices, low-fat products and even savoury foods like tomato ketchup. White bread and white rice also break down easily and quickly into simple sugars.The problem with all these simple sugars is that they spike blood sugar levels causing the release of insulin which then reduces the blood sugar levels quickly. The brain reacts by sending out adrenalin (a neurotransmitter) as the body thinks it needs a quick energy boost as it’s now in ‘survival mode’ (which, of course, it’s not really). The outcome may be panic attacks. By eating more complex carbohydrates like wholegrains (brown rice, rolled oats or wholegrain bread), or whole fruit and vegetables, your child is less likely to experience blood sugar level spikes and imbalances in their neurotransmitters.
Is your child consuming enough omega-3 fatty acids?
Omega 3 fatty acids are found in healthy fats, foods like salmon, mackerel, sardines, flaxseed oil and chia seeds. Many of the foods we eat contain high amounts of omega 6 fatty acids, which we do also need but in much lower amounts. Your anxious child needs to ensure they are eating plenty of Omega 3s as these fatty acids assist with a healthy nerve structure and function.
Is your child consuming caffeine?
Often, the high consumption of caffeine is a contributing factor to anxiety in adults, however, it shouldn’t be forgotten in children either. Whilst most children, probably won’t be drinking coffee in the quantities that many adults do, they may be consuming caffeine in soft drinks, energy drinks, tea or chocolate. Caffeine is a stimulant, affecting some neurotransmitters like GABA. One of GABA’s functions is to calm and relax your child and so by consuming caffeine your child is more likely to be uptight and anxious. Switch soft drinks to water, tea to herbal teas or caffeine-free teas like rooibos and limit chocolate.
Is your child eating enough protein?
When your child eats protein, like meat, fish and legumes, the protein is broken down into amino acids. These amino acids are required for the production of neurotransmitters, essential for maintaining a healthy nervous system, for calming moods, for sleep and for stabilising blood sugar levels. Many foods containing protein like meat and legumes, also contain minerals like zinc and B vitamins. These nutrients also support the production of neurotransmitters and blood sugar regulation. Ensure your child eats some protein at every meal.
Your child needs a range of nutrients to give them the best opportunity to manage and overcome their anxiety. A well-balanced diet, low in sugar and caffeine will support optimal functioning of their nervous and immune system, may boost their moods, calm them and reduce the symptoms of anxiety.
If you are concerned about your child’s anxiousness, I recommend that you seek professional help. If you wish to know more about how your child’s food choices may assist, please book an initial nutrition consultation with me here or email firstname.lastname@example.org for additional appointment times.
O'Neil, A., Quirk, S. E., Housden, S., Brennan, S. L., Williams, L. J., Pasco, J. A., Berk, M., … Jacka, F. N. (2014). Relationship between diet and mental health in children and adolescents: a systematic review. American journal of public health, 104(10), e31-42.